The colon is one of the most important organs in the human body, but what does it do and why is it so important to make sure it's healthy? Gastroenterologist Dr. Anish Sheth breaks down what you need to know that could save your life.
Also known as the large intestine, the colon makes up the last 4 or 5 feet of the gastrointestinal (GI) track and stores (and then eliminates) the residual fecal matter after the small intestine digests and absorbs the nutrients from our food. Dr. Sheth adds, "There are actually trillions of bacteria in the colon that can affect not only the health of the colon, but other areas like our immune system and metabolism."
Common colon-related problems include constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticulosis. "About 50 percent of people over the age of 50 will have diverticulosis," Dr. Sheth says, explaining that diverticula are little pockets that form in the colon that can become inflamed or infected and may require surgery to remove.
Detection and prevention
Dr. Sheth gets right to the point: "You have to look before you flush!" He tells Rachael that there's actually an iPhone app for charting your bowel habits called The Poo Log. While it's a way to have fun with monitoring your stool, Dr. Sheth says that it can also help pick up on health problems. "Blood in the stool can be serious, or changes in the caliber of your stool; if they're becoming thinner it could be a sign of something going on in your colon."
When it comes to getting a colonoscopy, Dr. Sheth recommends that everyone should have one at age 50, or by age 40 if there's a family history of colon-related issues. "Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S." he warns, "and the overwhelming majority of those cancers are preventable."
Dr. Sheth states that the most important thing you can do for gastrointestinal health is to get the proper amount of fiber in your diet, at least 25 grams a day. "On average, Americans get about a third of the recommended fiber that we're supposed to have per day, and as a result we have certain health problems that other parts of the world don't. If you get enough fiber in your diet, you decrease the chances of having some of these medical problems." Dr. Sheth says that green leafy vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli are the highest source of fiber in the vegetable family.
Dr. Sheth explains that these over-the-counter supplements are based on the theory that if you give back to the colon healthy bacteria in the right numbers, you can actually improve some mild GI symptoms. "It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you're having a little bit of discomfort every now and then because [probiotics] probably might be a quick and easy way to help."
Cleanser and colonics
Dr. Sheth states, "The theory is that we're all carrying around this film, this residue, in our colon that has to be flushed out. It turns out there's no medical basis for this. If you do colonics too frequently, you're actually flushing out the healthy bacteria and you don't want to do that." Dr. Sheth suggests that because there's no medical reason to do colonics or cleanses, you're probably better off sticking to probiotics and fiber.
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